Is it Possible to Separate the Art from the Artist?

words: Gabriella Restrepo

* This article represents the opinion of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Artverlaine.

Well, this is a complicated question with, you guessed it, a complicated answer. Both sides have very strong arguments, however, today I will briefly focus on the position I consider has better ones: It is not possible to separate the art from the artist. Furthermore, I will bring up some examples to prove that this separation has only been done to protect men, as “artistic geniuses”, from their crimes and misogynist abuses. And finally, the concept of Genius will allow me to talk about the disparity that exists when we talk about male and female artists when trying to answer this question.

Far from being possible or not, the question would be whether we should do it or not? First of all, artists are humans who think, feel and are affected by socioeconomic, political and cultural contexts that influence their [artistic] production. An artist creates by channeling their life through their art. It is created from experiences, either their own or capturing the experiences of others through their own point of view, therefore, both concepts cannot be disassociated. Second, since the 16th century with Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) and his Lives of the Artists, a biographical reading of artists has been made to explain their works, to explain how and under what circumstances they were trained, with whom, what influences they had and who they represented.[1] Just because we can decide to focus merely on the aesthetic aspects of an artwork disregarding completely the context in which they were created, doesn’t mean we always should. Artistic currents can only be understood when the context to which they belonged is understood. So, to say that the art is independent from the artist has little to no weight. And third, to really answer this question we need to talk about Art History as a history written by and for men. Women were not allowed to be artists and they were only allowed in art workshops as helpers or when they came from a family of painters, such as Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) and Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899). Women didn’t have permission to study anatomy, and up until “1893, ‘lady’ students were not admitted to life drawing at the official academy in London, and even when they were, after that date, the model had to be ‘partially draped’.”[2]

It is not a secret that men, specifically white heterosexual men, have always had an advantage in every field. They were granted with the right to education, vote, and legal control over their finances and bodies, no wonder why there have been so many men that we now call geniuses, but not a single woman. In her famous essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971), Linda Nochlin concludes that various social and institutional factors have prevented women’s talent from developing freely and demonstrates how the presence of women artists has been systematically silenced by the dominant historiography. The “absence” of women in Art History is a deliberate one. Even when women overcame the obstacles and prejudices of their time to succeed and make a name for themselves, it would take centuries and countless debates for art historians to recognize canvases of female painters as theirs, such is the case of Artemisia Gentileschi and her Madonna with Child (1613-14) often credited to her father Orazio Gentileschi.[3]

The Genius Myth

According to the Cambridge dictionary, a genius is a person who has a very great and rare natural ability or skill, especially in a particular area such as science or art.[4] However, this definition leaves out the families, teachers, peers, assistants, and patrons that helped in the genius’s development. The concept of Genius is a myth that supports the idea of treating male artists as untouchable deities. To go a bit deeper into this last statement, I will use the best-known untouchable “Genius” of the art world: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Nonetheless, he is not the only example of how this myth, has let us to believe that problematic biographical details belong with greatness, often at the expense of someone with less power. We have, for instance, Caravaggio (1571-1610) sentenced to death for murdering another man in 1606, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) who had sexual relationships with underaged girls, and film director Roman Polansky (1933-) accused of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl, just to name a few. 

But now, back to our main example, it is almost impossible at least in the West not to know who Picasso is, but to be on the safe side, Pablo Ruiz Picasso was a Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist and stage designer considered one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century. Picasso is famous for paintings like ‘Guernica’ and ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, and credited, along with Georges Braque, with the creation of Cubism.[5] Without entering into judgments as to whether we like his work or not, it is unquestionable that he was an outstanding practitioner, however, he was also a misogynist who used women as muses to then abandon them when they were not longer useful to him. Marina Picasso, his granddaughter, describes in a memoir the way in which Picasso sucked the life out of the women he supposedly loved: “He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”[6] Not to mention he was a pedophile who had a relationship with a 17-year-old girl (Marie-Thérèse Walter) when he was 45 and still married to his first wife Olga Khokhlova. 

In her book, Picasso: Creator and Destroyer (1989), Arianna Huffington claims that the painter burned Marie-Thérèse with cigarettes, and frequently beat the photographer and artist Dora Maar unconscious. As, Shannon Lee, remarks in her article The Picasso Problem: Why We Shouldn’t Separate the Art From the Artist’s Misogyny[7] “It’s too convenient for established men who have made their careers off of images of women to have their misogynist abuses brushed aside with that simple, near canonized argument” of keeping the “art separate from the artist”. [8]

Are there any Female geniuses?

The answer is a plain and simple: No. This category, as I mentioned earlier, only applies to men, because it seems that when we talk about women artists, Art Historians tend to make a revisionist reading of their lives and bring up not only their context, but also the relationships and misfortunes that affected them, and therefore influenced their art. Such is the case of the Italian Baroque painter, that I have been mentioning throughout this article, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) famous for painting strong female figures from popular myths and the Bible. One of her most famous works is Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612-13) in which her female protagonist is decapitating a man. Unfortunately, her recognition has been marked by being rapped, when she was 17 years old, by her teacher and also painter Agostino Tassi. As the art critic, Christopher P. Jones, affirms: it is hard to say to what extent Gentileschi’s rapped influenced her art, “but it might be more appropriate to place Gentileschi’s artwork in the wider historical context: as responding to a marketplace whose taste was for dramatic narratives of heroines from the Bible or classical sources.”[9]  


[1] Eugenia Tenenbaum, El mito de separar obra y artista, 2021, https://www.instagram.com/tv/CKg9wjlqkhl/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link.

[2] Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” in Art and Sexual Politics; Women’s Liberation, Women Artists, and Art History. (Macmillan, 1973), 24.

[3] See Madonna and Child (1613) by Artemisia Gentileschi 

[4] Cambridge University Press, “Genius,” in Cambridge Dictionary (Cambridge University Press, 2022), https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/genius.

[5] Biography, “Pablo Picasso,” Biographies, Biography, 2017, https://www.biography.com/artist/pablo-picasso.

[6] Shannon Lee, “The Picasso Problem: Why We Shouldn’t Separate the Art From the Artist’s Misogyny,” Online Magazine, ArtSpace, November 22, 2017, https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/art-politics/the_picasso_problem_why_we_shouldnt_separate_the_art_from_the_artists_misogyny-55120.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Christopher P. Jones, “How to Read Paintings: Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi,” Online Magazine, Medium, 2020, https://medium.com/thinksheet.


Bibliography

Biography. “Pablo Picasso.” Biographies. Biography, 2017. https://www.biography.com/artist/pablo-picasso.

Cambridge University Press. “Genius.” In Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge University Press, 2022. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/genius.

Gentileschi, Artemisia. Madonna and Child. 1613. Wikimedia Commons, 116.5 cm x 86.5 cm. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/51/Madonna-and-child-Gentileschi.jpg.

Jones, Christopher P. “How to Read Paintings: Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi.” Online Magazine. Medium, 2020. https://medium.com/thinksheet.

Lee, Shannon. “The Picasso Problem: Why We Shouldn’t Separate the Art From the Artist’s Misogyny.” Online Magazine. ArtSpace, November 22, 2017. https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/art-politics/the_picasso_problem_why_we_shouldnt_separate_the_art_from_the_artists_misogyny-55120.

Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” In Art and Sexual Politics; Women’s Liberation, Women Artists, and Art History., 150. Macmillan, 1973.

Tenenbaum, Eugenia. El mito de separar obra y artista, 2021. https://www.instagram.com/tv/CKg9wjlqkhl/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link.

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